Nov 06, 2001

It isn’t Malaya all over again: this time it’s war

Copyright 2001 Telegraph Group Limited THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON) November 06, 2001, Tuesday SECTION: Pg. 23 LENGTH: 1001 words HEADLINE: It isn't Malaya all over again: this time it's war BYLINE: By ROBERT HARRIS BODY: Professor Sir Michael Howard MC knows a great deal more about warfare than I do, or ever shall. His elegant analysis of the current crisis, first delivered as a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute last week, has been hailed as "brilliant", has been widely reported, reprinted in full, and is fast becoming the locus classicus of those opposed to military intervention in Afghanistan. Who am I to criticise a former Regius professor? I feel, metaphorically, like a Taliban fighter loosing off a couple of rifle rounds at a passing B52. Nevertheless, I think Sir Michael is wrong, even though what he says sounds so reasonable, and - to British ears - so flattering: that the Americans made "a terrible and irrevocable error" by declaring they were "at war" with terrorism; that in doing so they created "a war psychosis" and accorded the terrorists "a kind of legitimacy"; that it would have been better to have called it an "emergency" as the British did when fighting terror in, among other places, Malaya and Ireland; that this is "fundamentally" a "battle for hearts and minds" which will last for a decade or more; and that Osama bin Laden "can't lose" in the face of the present strategy because he will either escape and "be a Robin Hood", or be put on trial which "will provide him with a platform", or be assassinated and become "a martyr". The superficial attractions of this are obvious, but the flaw, I think, is equally glaring. When the British fought the communist Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) between 1948 and 1960 - Sir Michael's chief example of how terrorist threats should be dealt with - we also controlled Malaya's government and security forces. It was thanks to this control that we were able forcibly to move more than half a million Chinese civilians from the jungle areas where they lived to tightly controlled "New Villages", thus denying sanctuary and support to the guerrillas. (Imagine trying that today under the watchful lenses of the BBC and CNN.) Thereafter, our long-established presence on the ground enabled the successful pursuit of "hearts and minds". The problem America faces with al-Qa'eda is completely different. The fashionable talk of the "breeding grounds" of terrorism being in Western cities is not strictly true: the literal "breeding ground" is the network of bin Laden's training camps inside Afghanistan. Here, too, is the source of his funding: US intelligence estimates that the Afghan narcotics trade, managed by the Taliban, earns (or used to earn: receipts may have fallen off lately) about pounds 5 billion a year, of which bin Laden took a percentage for organising sales and money laundering amounting to between pounds 80 million and pounds 600 million a year. These are huge sums compared with those needed in the past by, say, the IRA. But al-Qa'eda's operations are on a commensurately vaster scale. Apart from the cost of their 5,000-strong standing army, the September 11 attacks alone are reckoned to have needed about pounds 300,000 to mount. Bin Laden's associates are believed to have tried to acquire anthrax from the Czech Republic and Indonesia, and nuclear material from Kazakhstan and the Chechen mafia. Cyanide experiments have been conducted in al-Qa'eda's training camps using dogs. One of the suicide bombers, Mohamed Atta, made inquiries in February about buying crop-dusting planes. These things are expensive. ("We don't consider it a crime if we try to have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons," bin Laden said in 1999: as with Hitler, we can never say he didn't warn us.) Surely we are a long way here from Malaya in the 1950s? Afghanistan, according to the British terrorism expert Peter Bergen in his excellent new study, Holy War, "is becoming the modern world's first jihadist state". And once any country finds itself having to deal with terrorism that is facilitated, shielded and financed by a separate state - a state in which America doesn't even have an embassy, let alone control of the government and the police force - then all comparisons with previous colonial insurgencies must fall. This, in turn, goes to the heart of the dispute between those who support and those who oppose military action against the Taliban and al-Qa'eda. Of course, if one takes Sir Michael's view that al-Qa'eda is a terrorist threat essentially similar to the IRA or the MRLA, then the current bombing in Afghanistan is a crazy over-reaction, almost certain to be counter-productive. But if one accepts Bergen's thesis, it is hard to see what else the US can do. Bergen has met bin Laden and his conclusion is clear: "The most effective plan beyond eliminating the leadership of the group is to shut down permanently the Afghan training camps The training camps turn raw recruits with a general and inchoate antipathy to the West into skilled bomb makers." And the only way to ensure the camps remain closed is to put an end to the Taliban regime which protects them. Set against this, the semantics of whether or not this is a "war" or an "emergency" are unimportant. The truth is that it's both. At the moment, principally, it's a war in Afghanistan which, one prays, will be of limited duration, and which will succeed in eliminating al-Qa'eda and the Taliban. Whether bin Laden personally is captured, killed or cooped up in a cave for years is of less immediate importance than rendering him operationally ineffective. It is the years after the war which will form the period of emergency. And here I agree with Sir Michael when he says that it would be "disastrous" to embark on "a 'Long March' through other 'rogue states' beginning with Iraq, in order to eradicate terrorism for good and all". That is a recipe for endless bloodshed. Once the Taliban has fallen, hearts and minds will need to be the West's new objectives. But before we get to that, we have to go through this; before we can fight the emergency, we have to win the war. [PS]Features: [ES]